Ismail Omar Guelleh was sworn in as Djibouti’s new president on May 8, becoming its second leader since independence in 1977. But, having frequently stood in unofficially for his ailing and elderly uncle, the retiring president Hasan Gouled Aptidon, he will have no illusions about governing the tiny and impoverished Red Sea state, which has become a virtual pawn in the endless wars in the Horn of Africa.
The former French colony is heavily dependent on foreign aid and only its French military base - with a garrison of 2,500 men - has prevented challenges to Djibouti’s territory by neighbouring Ethiopia or Eritrea.
The Red Sea country is almost entirely Muslim, but there is ethnic strife between the majority Issa Somalis and the sizeable Affar minority, which the former colonial power encouraged. After independence, Affar politicians complained that they were being excluded from power. This led to an insurgency helped by their kinsmen across the border in Eritrea.
Affar activists were joined by Somalis opposed to Gouled’s lengthy rule, and even by supporters of the regime suspicious of the ailing president’s grooming Guelleh for succession. The regime responded by expanding the army and building new prisons, which the country’s economy could not sustain. The political situation suffered further setbacks in December 1995, when Gouled flew to France for medical treatment, where he remained until March 1996. His decision to leave the reigns of power to his nephew, led to dissent within the ruling RPP. But now that Guelleh has successfully succeeded his uncle, he needs to placate his opponents if his country is to survive the challenges it faces.
Externally, Djibouti has good relations with landlocked Ethiopia, which relies on the Djibouti port for exporting goods. Djibouti also has good ties with the neighbouring Somaliland Republic, being the only country to have recognised it. But it faces a serious problem with Eritrea, which claims as its own a 20km strip of a country whose entire area is 23,200 square km. Guelleh must also realize that cosying up to Israel, as Djibouti has done in recent years, will not help him rule a Muslim country only able to survive with French military backing.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999